The Hillsborough disaster was a watershed moment in British sporting history. Not only and obviously for the poor 96 souls who lost their lives, and their families, but also the impact it had subsequently on sporting grounds. It instigated a revolution in stadium safety both here and in world football.
It was, however, a disaster that wasn’t a one off, it was a long time coming and inevitable. When the initial reports came in on that fateful Saturday most fans knew immediately which end of the ground it was in – crushing in antiquated terraces was the norm. I’m sure I wasn’t the only to view the images on television and think to oneself: “there but for the grace of God go I…”
At the time Britain’s grounds could claim the worst safety record of any other developed nation, despite no fewer than eight official reports into crowd safety between 1924-85. Hillsborough was no freak, and we all knew it, it was the culmination of complacency, neglect, low investment, bad management and prejudice. It’s no coincidence that in the 20 or so years since the famous Taylor Report, who recommended significant changes to stadia safety, that no major incident has occurred, yet in the 20 years prior to 1989, we had involving British fans; Ibrox 1971, Bradford fire, Heysel, and of course Hillsborough.
We also knew from the outset, that Hillsborough was a cover-up, particularly by South Yorkshire Police. Whatever ones thoughts on the game of football, or the futility of sport in general, a parent with a child in a so-called civilised society should be able to attend a sporting game on a Saturday afternoon and return home safely after. And when that doesn’t happen there should be a proper inquiry into all institutions involved. With Hillsborough, though, it was clear from the start that a major cover-up ensured: UEFA, FIFA, the Thatcher Government, MPs (even recently), the media, the coroners, and most notably South Yorkshire Police all closed ranks (for many years Sheffield Wednesday refused to have a memorial at their ground, like it was an embarrassment). The blame was pinned quite decidedly by Lord Justice Taylor on South Yorkshire Police.
Yet today I’m surprised with the contents of the publication of an independent report into the disaster. I must confess that I was cynical from the outset: the files would be delayed ’till the 30 year rule comes in 2019, they would be redacted and they would be incomplete. But I was wrong, and even for a hardened cynic like myself, when it comes to the behaviour of police at football I’m rather taken aback by some of the revelations:
- Some 164 police statements were amended, he says. Many removed comments attacking the police.
- Officers carried out police national computer checks on the dead to impugn their reputation.
- Blood tests were also taken from the dead to see if they had been drinking, including from children.
- At the time of the Taylor Report [Margaret Thatcher] was briefed by her private secretary that the defensive and – I quote – “close to deceitful” behaviour of senior South Yorkshire officers was “depressingly familiar.”
And it is clear that the then government thought it right that the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire should resign.
- Evidence that a number of the dead survived “for a significant period” beyond the 3.15pm cut-off point imposed at the original inquest
- …a box of files containing police statements littered with hand-written notes saying ‘remove the last page’, ‘exclude the last paragraph’ and ‘rewritten as requested’.
This is wholesale corruption and cover-up by the authorities, one that hasn’t come to light in detail for over 23 years.
The absence of a coroner’s report applying a verdict compatible with this assertion, or the experiences of all those who witnessed and survived Leppings Lane, is as incomprehensible and reprehensible as the actions on that initial April day.
When the coroner, Stefan Popper, decided the deaths were accidental 90 days after April 15 – on the grounds of what we can now see was tainted and doctored evidence – his judgement became emblematic of the most insidious representation of the second, institutional disaster; of the deceptions, the cover-ups, the lies and the closeted public ‘servants’ who idly kept their distance and shuffled off to their comfortable retirement as peers of the realm when they knew justice had not been done.
I haven’t had time yet to read through the entire report but tribute must be made to the ‘justice for the 96’ campaign who never gave up.